Pakistan’s publication counting adds up to too little

Academic research is not having any significant impact on the national economy or health of society, laments Tahir Shah

July 21, 2020
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The impact of the coronavirus pandemic is only likely to accelerate the increasing global focus on the impact of academic research. But Pakistan has a long way to travel if that emphasis is to be adopted in its own universities.

Currently, the Pakistani academic reward and award system is still mainly based on number of publications – and, less importantly, the impact factor of the journals in which they appear. Academics seeking tenure and promotion focus mainly on meeting the volume criteria set by the Higher Education Commission (HEC), often turning to journals with dubious impact factors, classified according to metrics that may not have any real significance or social relevance.

The intention of the numerical targets is to improve the quality of Pakistani universities’ education and research, but these improvements are not evident. Certainly, academic research is not having any significant impact on the national economy or health of society. It seems that researchers are either reluctant or unable to engage with the business and the national strategic organisations necessary to deliver impact.

The HEC regulations are minimum standards and permit the universities to set their own more stringent requirements. However, this leads to acrimony between the staff and management, negatively affecting the working environment.

Researchers’ stress is only heightened by the ubiquitous sense of competition that pervades Pakistani academe. Universities can be very “prudent” in their selection of students and staff, choosing only those who can deliver the high grades, multiple publications and funded projects necessary to improve performance in the research evaluation programmes. Meanwhile, academics unethically compete over the grants and publications that they hope will secure them tenure and promotions. It is generally healthy for institutions to compete for prestige, but when focused on individuals, competition is destructive of both individual and institutional progress – and perhaps also academics’ mental health.

The bad feeling is exacerbated by the dual nature of Pakistan’s higher education reward and award system. The Basic Pay Scale (BPS) runs alongside the Tenure Track System (TTS); those on the TTS are paid significantly higher salaries but they feel hard done by owing to its more stringent reward criteria. The academics on the BPS, meanwhile, expect to be promoted as soon as they have obtained the required minimum numbers, such as years of service and number of publications. In particular, the HEC-specified criteria for professorship lack clarity and purpose.

Although both career tracks involve review by international experts, this is again based on the numbers provided by the academics and the institutions; the experts do not gain a feel for the academics’ real contributions or the environment under which the research was carried out. Moreover, sympathetic or unsympathetic experts can be deliberately chosen to speed up or slow down the candidate’s promotion process.

Having worked in the UK for more than 40 years, I am well aware that there is another way. I have taken part in many iterations of the research excellence framework and its predecessors, which increasingly focuses on the quality and socio-economic impact of departments’ research output. And this informs the tenure and promotion criteria adopted by institutions.

Recently, meanwhile, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) announced the introduction of new academic job classifications that it hopes will allow scholars to develop a wider focus on things other than research, such as teaching, social impact, management and collaborative scholarship. The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research has barred the use of h-indices and journal impact factors in its assessment procedures to help researchers develop the confidence to develop purposeful research programmes.

Pakistan needs to learn from these developments. The current system was probably needed when it was introduced many years ago, to encourage researchers to improve their publication output. But Pakistan must now develop a viable single academic promotion and reward system based on fair, transparent benchmarks. Only this will encourage original, sustained and impactful contributions to the knowledge and socio-economic health of the country. The current focus on numbers does not add up.

Tahir H. Shah is a consultant and professor of advanced materials and technical textiles at the National Textile University in Faisalabad, Pakistan and a fellow of the UK's Royal Society of Chemistry and Textile Institute.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Pakistan’s zero-sum game

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